The one who calls people to Islam or teaches what knowledge he has with a sincere intention can be certain of a great reward.  Prophet Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of Allah be upon ihm, said, “Convey from me, even if it is a verse.” He did not stipulate that the person should have vast knowledge; rather he stipulated that he should have knowledge of what he is teaching.  Those who teach are not automatically scholars.  Scholars possess certain traits and qualities and a very high level of Islamic education.   

In Arabic the word for a scholar is Aalim.  It is a word that carries a similar meaning to the words faqeeh and mujtahid; they all strive to reach a Shariah ruling via the evidence presented.   This is generally a person who has spent many years acquiring the tools and prerequisites that are required to make ijtihad. 

One of the most renowned scholars of the 20th century, Sheikh Ibn Uthaymeen described very succinctly what educational standard a Muslim should achieve in order to be considered a scholar.[1] His words are paraphrased below.  Although the word ‘he’ is used, it is to be understood that these prerequisites apply to both male and female scholars.

Firstly, he (the mujtahid) should have knowledge of the evidences that he needs for the purpose of ijtihad, such as the verses of the Quran and ahadith that speak of rulings.  He should have knowledge of the matters pertaining to the soundness or weakness of hadith, such as the isnad, and the narrators in the isnad.   Next he should be aware of what abrogates and what is abrogated and issues on which there is consensus.  He should have knowledge of various matters affecting the ruling, such as reports of specific meanings, reports that set limits, and so on.  He should also have knowledge of the Arabic language and Usool al-fiqh (Principles of Islamic jurisprudence) that has to do with verbal evidence, such as what is general and what is specific, what is absolute and what is restricted, what is mentioned in brief and what is mentioned in detail, and so on, so that his rulings will be in accordance with what is indicated by that evidence.  Lastly he should have the ability to use this knowledge to examine the evidence and derive rulings.

It should be noted that these terms, aalim, faqeeh and mujtahid, should not be used to describe just anyone who speaks about Islamic rulings or teaches Islamic material in schools, universities, or cultural centers, nor should it be used for everyone who works in the field of dawah.  These terms denote a level of scholarship that cannot be acquired easily and often takes decades of study. 

Prophet Muhammad spoke very eloquently about the superiority of people of knowledge or scholars.  “The superiority of an aalim over the devout is like my superiority over a worshipper or like that of the moon in the night when it is full, over the rest of the stars, and truly the scholars are the heirs of the prophets, and truly the prophets do not leave behind them gold or silver, they only leave knowledge as their heritage.  So whosoever acquires knowledge acquires a huge fortune.”[2]

Knowing who is a scholar and who is not is something that every Muslim must endeavour to understand.  In this digital age where information is freely available and easily accessible it is very easy for people who are not qualified to set themselves up as Islamic scholars and the damage they can do to hearts and minds is sometimes unrepairable.  When an unqualified person gives a religious verdict people might be lead astray.   Reading a book, often translated from Arabic does not make the reader a scholar.  He or she is not able to make rulings.  Speaking eloquently in front of a camera and posting it on YouTube is not a sign of scholarship. 

The role of a Muslim scholar is to guide people to the right path and to help people feel and be closer to Allah.  They need to be able to interpret not only the Quran and Sunnah but the body of scholarship that developed since the dawn of Islam.   This is not a position to be taken lightly.  In fact it holds so much responsibility that the sahabah and those who followed them avoided giving religious rulings if they were able to do so. 

It is said that one of the great scholars of Shariah, Abdur-Rahman ibn Abu Laila, said, “I was able to meet with one hundred and twenty of the Sahabah.  Every one of these companions was asked about specific Shariah issues, seeking a verdict, but they avoided rendering a decision instead pointing to another companion to issue the answer.  They were afraid to give an answer that would be incorrect for which they would be responsible before Allah.”  Compare this to the ease with which those unqualified give rulings in this day and age.

Because of his level of study, the scholar holds a very high status amongst the Muslim Ummah.  It is his or her role to help and encourage people to obey the rules of Allah and stay on a middle path in all things, belief, worship, ethics, morality, behavior, and social interactions. 

It is also important to understand that scholars are not infallible.  They might be the inheritors of the prophets but they are also human beings with all the foibles and imperfections that come with humanity.  This is one of the reasons why scholars do not take religious rulings or fatawa lightly. 

Imam Malik[3]  was once asked about twenty-two different juristic issues.  He only responded to two.  In answering these he prayed seeking support from Allah and he was not hasty in his responses.  It is said that “the one among you who quickly runs to make fatwa, is like one who is running to throw himself into the fire.” Such sayings emphasize the importance of deep consideration when making a ruling.  A scholar is patient and thoughtful.

There are many terms associated with the status of a scholar and many of them are defined in the Arabic terms section of this lesson and the previous lesson.  Two terms however require a more in-depth definition and understanding.  Fatwa and mufti are two words that are used easily but sometimes without truly understand their meaning. 

A fatwa is an Islamic legal ruling, issued by an expert in religious law.   It usually pertains to a specific issue and is given at the request of an individual, group or judge and will be used to resolve the issue.  A fatwa is necessary if a point of law or the circumstances are unclear.    Fatawa are also required when new matters develop such as advancing technology and science.   “Can a Muslim be involved in cloning?” is, for instance, a question that would require a fatwa.

In nations that observe Islamic law, fatawa are rigorously debated before being issued publicly.  They are affirmed by consensus of a supreme religious council.  In these countries fatawa are rarely contradictory, and are enforceable by law.  In nations that do not recognize Islamic law, Muslims are often confronted with competing fatawa.  If this is the case a person may choose which ruling to follow. 

Unless a person is extremely well educated in Islamic jurisprudence he or she has no authority to issue a fatwa.  Such an educated person is known as a mufti.  A mufti is considered the pinnacle of scholars because of the advanced training required.  He is an expert in Islamic law qualified to give authoritative legal opinions (fatawa); usually a member of the established ulama and ranked above  a qadi.  The qadi, on the other hand issues a judgment on particular cases or incidents pertaining to an individual or groups.   Typically such cases involve two adversaries.  Under normal circumstances both parties (the mufti and the qadi) work together.  The mufti builds the point of law and the qadi applies it.

In order to issue a fatwa the mufti must know several things that can only be understood after undertaking years of comprehensive religious education.  For example, he must know the verses of the Quran pertaining to the ruling at hand - when each was revealed and why, as well as being able to distinguish between any supportive and oppositional verses.  He must be familiar with all the ahadith pertaining to the ruling and the soundness of their chains of transmission, and be familiar with the legal precedents on the issue, including arguments and any consensus reached by earlier scholars.   He must also  be well-versed in the syntax, grammar, pronunciation, idioms, special linguistic uses, customs and culture prevalent at the time of the Prophet and the following two generations. 

It is worth remembering that fatawa issued by unqualified and or unauthorised individuals have no legal standing.  It is impermissible to issue a fatwa when one does not have the required knowledge.   In addition to this a ruling by a mufti is not given force of law.  It is a response to an issue and it is up to individuals to follow the ruling or not.  Law on the other hand, is enforced by individual judgments of the court. 

Islamic law otherwise known as the Shariah calls people to the middle path, in all things, including belief, worship, ethics, morality, behaviour, interactions, and intellectual understanding.  This could be called the basis of Shariah, where the essential and guiding principle is moderation.  Islam strikes a balance between extremes. 

Prophet Muhammad said, “O people beware of going to extremes in religious matters for those who came before you were doomed because of going to extremes in religious matters.”[1]  In Islam religion is not separate from everyday life; a Muslim strives to make every aspect of his daily living a form of worship.  Thus Prophet Muhammad was warning his followers to be moderate, to follow a middle way and to choose the easier of options that fall within the boundaries of the Shariah.  One of the roles of a Muslim scholar is to guide and educate others as to where those boundaries lie.

“We have made you [believers] into a just community (a middle nation)…” (Quran 2:143)

Prophet Muhammad’s beloved wife Aisha said that, “Whenever the Prophet had to choose between two options, he always opted for the easier choice, unless it was sinful, in which case, he would avoid it.”[2] Thus part of the role of a Muslim scholar is to make Islam easy for others and to deter people from going to extremes.

Allah said to Prophet Muhammad, “It is part of the mercy of Allah that you deal gently with them.  If you were severe or hardhearted, they would have broken away from you” (Quran 3: 159). And accordingly when he sent Mu’adh bin Jabal, may Allah be pleased  with him, to teach Islam to the people of Yemen, he gave them the following advice, “Facilitate religious matters to people and do not make things difficult.  Obey each other and do not differ [amongst yourselves].”

Islam also strikes a balance in taking knowledge from Islamic scholars.  A Muslim should not consider himself as self-sufficient and hence ignore all what scholars have to say – this is a sure path to falling into deviant ideologies.  And on the other hand he should not consider Islamic scholars infallible; taking their words to be infallible is part of the extremes believers are asked to stay away from.  A Muslim humbly acknowledges his level of knowledge and learns his Islam from those who are competent and trustworthy. 

Muslim scholars, those educated to advise and make religious rulings, do their best to help believers stay firmly on the right path, the middle path.  They first and foremost undertake highly specialised religious training and education; their depth of knowledge is not gained via all the information easily available on the internet today.  A scholar is a person who knows, and has spent many many hours and years, even decades, acquiring that knowledge. 

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